Youth work starts where young people are - but how can youth workers get there?

Edited on 06/12/2023

NextGen YouthWork - group of youth outdoor

Young people spend more and more time online. But do youth workers know where? And more importantly, how can they get there to provide them with the help they need? 

European youth spend much of their time online

With the rise of digitalisation, youth spend much of their time online, mostly in communities on social media like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok or gaming platforms such as PlayStation, Discord and Twitch. Therefore, young people spend less time outside and in physical places like youth centres. According to the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway data (2021), the percentage of teenagers spending more than 2 hours on screens at the age of 11 is between 43-67% for males and 30-66% for females. At 15, these numbers are even higher: 53-71% for males and 50-75 for females. According to estimates, young adults spend, on average, 6-7 hours per day on screens. This phenomenon was amplified during the Covid-19 outbreak when researchers saw screen time almost double during lockdowns. They suggested that screen time may decline post-covid, but not to the level we saw before. In short, the trend of spending more time online is here to stay.
The fact that youth spend an increasing part of their time online and, therefore, less in physical public spaces also means that they need to be reached in the digital sphere and need digital counselling and information. The demand for digital youth work is exceptionally high among youth who experience social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, stress, depression, and digital or gaming addiction. Because of their social anxiety or less-developed social skills, they may experience many mental and physical obstacles when reaching out to youth workers or other professionals in the physical world, such as youth centres and schools.

Youth workers need to reach youth online and support to do so

Youth workers are aware of behavioural change among youth and look for ways to better adapt to this phenomenon, thus using digital youth work. They want to be able to reach their target groups online and offline. However, this is challenging as it requires changes to how they work. Youth workers can use the key social media and gaming platforms to be accessible to 'their' young people, interact with them online, or promote their offline activities. In reality, most youth workers are reactive on these platforms; only a minority offer online services and create content more effectively. 
Most youth workers need more insight into the online living environment of young people. They need to know the roles social media offers young people and what growing up in a digital environment requires regarding guidance. Nevertheless, there are many reasons for not tapping into the potential of digital youth work yet. These reasons range from a lack of funding from public authorities to a lack of education for youth workers. This leaves a gap between young people's needs and youth workers' professional development that requires to be bridged.
Plenty of tools in digital youth work need to be taken advantage of, such as providing platforms for peer-to-peer discussion on a diversity of themes, using gaming for training and learning, and reaching out to youth who are more challenging to reach offline. Moreover, digital youth work can address many areas relevant to youth, not only mental health issues. Digital tools provide an excellent opportunity for non-formal and informal learning about various specific skills and general topics, such as training, employment, mobility, gender equality and diversity, financial literacy and sexual education. Digital environments support community engagement and social and political participation. There are tools to improve low-threshold access to care or help and have an accessible way to contact professionals.

Youth and the digital transition are at the forefront of European policies

Youth work has developed differently across Europe for historical, social, cultural and economic reasons. These differences are further nuanced by digital divergences within the EU. However, both youth work and the digital transition are at the forefront of European policies and represent a vital backstop for the development of the field. The European Commission formulated the European Youth Strategy to engage, connect and empower young people in 2018. and published the agenda of Shaping Europe's digital future in 2020, focusing on digital transformation for the benefit of people and an open, democratic and sustainable society. And finally, 2022 was the European Year of Youth, putting youth at the forefront and shining a light on its importance in building a better – greener, more inclusive and digital – future.

NextGen YouthWork helps cities address digital youth work at a strategic policy level

These policy developments provide significant support to European cities to address digital youth work challenges. In addition, the URBACT programme, through the NextGen YouthWork network, will provide tangible, concrete support to 10 European cities to address this challenge and develop a hybrid and sustainable future for youth work at a strategic policy level. Eindhoven, Aarhus, Cartagena, Iași, Klaipėda, Oulu, Perugia, Tetovo, Veszprém and Viladecans will share their best practices and experiences and engage, connect and empower young people. And there are plenty of inspiring practices! Some cities succeeded by transitioning offline youth work tools to the online environment. Others excel at using gaming to engage with youth or even developing new tools for the digital environment. There are good examples of implementing digital shifts at the local level, as well as of pooling resources and knowledge at the regional or national level to ease the financial burden of going digital. Cities often initiate new tools, but grassroots initiatives by youth are also notable examples.

Are you passionate about empowering the next generation and creating a better future? Stay up to date with NextGen YouthWork cities to learn about truly inspiring practices in youth work!

Submitted by Zsolt Séra on 06/12/2023
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Zsolt Séra

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